Today I’m doing something I never thought I’d do: defending Dr. Ben Carson.
I’m standing up for Carson in the face of an attack on his faith by Donald Trump. Trump’s assault was crude and below the belt; it also displayed great ignorance.
Speaking in Jacksonville, Fla., on Saturday, Trump commented on a new poll that shows him trailing Carson in Iowa. Carson is a member of the Seventh-day Adventist Church (SDA), and for some reason Trump decided to go after him for that instead of, say, criticizing his rival’s policy positions.
“I love Iowa,” Trump said. “And, look, I don’t have to say it, I’m Presbyterian. Can you believe it? Nobody believes I’m Presbyterian. I’m Presbyterian. I’m Presbyterian. I’m Presbyterian. Boy, that’s down the middle of the road, folks, in all fairness. I mean, Seventh-day Adventist, I don’t know about. I just don’t know about.”
The reason you don’t know about it, Mr. Trump, is that you have chosen not to know about it. You have opted to remain ignorant of the SDA faith while simultaneously seeking to divide Americans on the basis of religion. This is not the first time you’ve done it, and I suspect it won’t be the last. It’s classic demagoguery.
Put aside the question of Trump’s commitment to his own faith. Religion doesn’t appear to have been important to him until a few months ago when he began running for president. At the Values Voter Summit last month, Trump literally waved what he claimed was his childhood Bible. Given that Trump’s own pastor says he rarely shows up for services, the cynical part of me wondered if Trump’s worn testament hadn’t come from a thrift store.
But let’s give him the benefit of the doubt. Trump, as he noted more than once, is a Presbyterian. Carson is an Adventist. What, if anything, does this mean for the campaign?
Looked at in a vacuum, this information tells us very little. As it turns out, Adventists are often strong defenders of the separation of church and state. They played a role in the founding of Americans United in 1947, and many remain active in the group. In Adventist churches, it’s not uncommon to find a religious liberty secretary – a man or a woman whose job it is to monitor church-state and religious-liberty issues on behalf of the congregation.
Carson, then, is something of an outlier in the SDA community since he doesn’t appear to be a big fan of separation of church and state. This illustrates the danger of making assumptions about people based on one piece of information. Simply knowing that Carson is an Adventist doesn’t tell us much. His actual words and policy statements give much more information. Trump, and others, would do better to focus on those.
What really troubles me about this incident is the implication in Trump’s statement that there’s something weird or wrong about being an Adventist. Trump’s Presbyterian faith is “middle of the road.” And the Adventists, we are led to believe by Trump, are somehow not.
That’s funny because all of the Adventists I’ve had the good fortune to work alongside for the past 28 years strike me as anything but strange or threatening. Like many Americans, they treasure their faith and want to protect it. Because Adventists hold Saturday as the Sabbath, they have sometimes come into conflict and had to defend their right not to work on that day. They’ve taken cases into the courts and argued for their rights, and they have won some and lost some – just like lots of other religious groups. Sounds pretty “middle of the road” to me.
A few years ago, I had the honor of taking part in a panel discussion at a large SDA church in Takoma Park, Md. We discussed issues of religious liberty, and matters like marriage equality and accommodations came up. A variety of opinions were expressed. We didn’t all agree, but we had the discussion in the context of mutual respect and a quest to understand one another’s views. This type of approach has been a hallmark of the SDA community that I know.
It’s a shame that Trump chooses to spread bigotry instead of getting to know that community.
Of course I have my disagreements with Carson. I suspect many of you do as well. So let me be absolutely clear about this: We should never hesitate to take on Carson, Trump or any other politician when we disagree with their vision for this nation. But we can do that without insinuating that their religion is somehow not welcome in America.
So, by all means anyone, including Trump, should feel free to question where Carson wants to take this country. What the bombastic real estate developer fails to understand, however, is this: It’s quite possible to do that without also questioning where Carson chooses to worship.